23 August, 2016

A Piece of Humble Pie - Design of Apple Pie Not Registrable, Says US Court of Appeals

What is more enjoyable than a case involving food and an intellectual property law? This writer for one will freely admit his love of both, and any case that presents a scenario mixing the two is a delight. Many recent cases have touched on the design of various food items, including the recent Kit Kat litigation in the UK (discussed more here) and in the CJEU (discussed more here), and as manufacturers and makers of edible goods compete for marketshare, the shape of these items can become quite valuable and important. One still has to distinguish this from recipes (discussed more here), and while they are much less likely to be protectable, shapes are a different matter altogether. With that said, could you protect the shape of a dish, specifically a pie? The Court of Appeals in the US aimed to answer this question only late last month.

The case of Sweet Sweet Desserts, Inc. v Chudleigh's Ltd dealt with a design of a single-serving apple pie, meaning a whole pie meant for one person in a neat, convenient package. This particular food item was the creation of Scott Chudleigh, the owner of an apple farm and bakery in Ontario, Canada. It consisted of a ball-like shape, with upward facing, spiralling petals that overlap each other, encasing the apple pie filling within. He subsequently filed for a trademark in 2005 (US trademark 2262208, which includes an illustration of the design). The pies where distributed to various companies for resale, including a discussion with Applebee's in the US for the sale of the item in their restaurants, but the negotiations fell through. In 2010 Applebee's approached Sweet Sweet Desserts to create a single-serving apple pie, much akin to the idea conjured by Mr Chudleigh, who developed an "apple pocket" with a pie-like bottom and an overlapping spiral top design, leaving a gap in the top (subjectively quite similar to Chudleigh's apple pie design).  After launch Mr Chudleigh noticed, through online advertising, the similarities of the two designs, and took Sweet Sweet Desserts to court over trademark and trade dress infringement.

Little Jimmy's "floor pie" was received with less enthusiasm
The first issue dealt with by Justice Shwartz was whether Chudleigh's design was merely functional, and thus not registrable as a trademark. 15 USC section 1125(a) prohibits the use of any marks that would deceive a consumer as to the origin of goods or services, potentially including the aforementioned design, provided the design is not only functional and thus not a designation of such an origin. Justice Shwartz further set out that "...in general terms, a product feature is functional, and cannot serve as a trademark, if it is essential to the use or purpose of the article or if it affects the cost or quality of the article". Even if a feature were deemed to not be functional, a court can still find against the owner should the mark put competitors "...at a significant non-reputation-related disadvantage", therefore potentially restricting competition in the field (i.e. if a design or shape of a mark is essential or near-essential to the creation or presentation of certain types of goods).

What the Court found was that the design was indeed functional, as "...the shape of the dough is essential to the purpose of an effective single-serving fruit pie, and affects its cost and quality". Arguably this is correct, since the folding of the dough in order to seal the filling into the pie does just that, and does not, at least for the most part, act as purely decorative, clearly designating an origin for those particular pies. Mr Chudleigh admitted to this fact somewhat, stating that the use of the dough in that particular shape was designed to save on cost and to fill a particular market need for single-serving pies. Additionally, the number of 'petals' in the pies would be predominantly as a functional aspect, giving the best results for holding in the filling and baking, again enforcing a lack of decorative purpose and pure functionality. The Court therefore determined the design to be functional, and revoked Mr Chudleigh's registration.

The final claim dealt with by the court was Sweet Sweet Desserts' claim for tortious interference with their relationship with Applebee's through Mr Chudleigh's assertion of his alleged rights (being very similar to groundless threats in the UK). Justice Shwartz quickly ruled against this claim, determining that Mr Chudleigh's cease-and-desist letter, sent to Applebee's after his discovery of the Sweet Sweet Desserts' apple pie, since the letter was an "...objectively plausible effort to enforce rights" and not a sham to extract a settlement from the parties prior to a full case. Even though he failed in the case at hand, losing his rights in the design, does not take away from his legitimate belief at the time as to the existence of these rights. The Court ultimately allowed the application for summary judgment for both parties.

The case, albeit not ground-breaking in any way, is a curious predicament for the law, especially considering the uncertain world of food-related trademarks and rights. This writer would fully agree with the Court, since the design of the pie was purely functional, and any decorative or indicative purposes were either incidental or minor in the grand scheme of things. It is unclear whether Mr Chudleigh could have succeeded in a claim for passing off in the UK, and this writer sure does have his doubts as to this, but the idea would seem to be a novel one as a hypothetical.

Source: JDSupra

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